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The Democratic Peace and Contemporary U.S. Military Interventions

Mark Peceny

International Studies Association
41st Annual Convention
Los Angeles, CA
March 14-18, 2000



Critics of the Clinton administration have argued that it has been both too eager to launch military interventions to serve ideological and humanitarian goals and too weak and indecisive in its use of force abroad. Building on the literature on the democratic peace, this paper argues that the puzzling pattern of contemporary U.S. military interventions is precisely what one should expect of a liberal state. Cultural values cause liberal states to intervene in response to humanitarian crises, human rights violations and political tyranny in states where they lack more concrete national interests. At the same time, however, the political constraints imposed by liberal institutions of governance make these states reluctant to use force or to pay high costs to achieve liberal goals. Thus, liberal values and liberal political institutions have somewhat contradictory impacts on military intervention. The strong alliances liberal states form among themselves compounds this problem. A collection of liberal states acting in concert reinforces the contradictory political impulses within each liberal state. This essay uses Clinton administration policy toward Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia to demonstrate the utility of this argument for explaining U.S. intervention in the contemporary era.

Portions of this paper have appeared in "Liberal Interventionism in Bosnia," Journal of Conflict Studies," Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 5-26 (co-authored with Shannon Sanchez-Terry) and Democracy at the Point of Bayonets (Penn State Press 1999).


The Democratic Peace and Contemporary U.S. Military Interventions

You have accomplished much, but there is much more to do. You have established the joint institutions of democracy. Now you must work within them, sharing power as you share responsibility. You have vowed to welcome back those displaced from their homes by war. Now you must vote for the return program so that they actually can come back with stronger protections for minorities.... You have begun to turn the media from an instrument of hate into a force of tolerance and understanding. Now you must raise it to international standards of objectivity and access and allow an independent press the freedom to thrive. You are taking the police out of the hands of warlords. Now you must help to reform, retrain and re-equip a democratic force that fosters security, not fear. You have pledged to isolate and arrest indicted war criminals. Now you must follow through on that commitment, both for the sake of justice and in the serving of lasting peace. President Bill Clinton, December 22, 1997. 1

President Clinton provided an elegant summary of the character of his administration's military intervention in Bosnia in his speech to residents of Sarajevo during a 1997 Christmas-season visit to Bosnia. The Clinton administration has pursued an ambitious political strategy to resolve the devastating civil war that spurred international intervention in Bosnia by installing a full-fledged liberal democratic regime in that divided country. At the same time, Clinton has proved reluctant to use the potent firepower of the U.S. troops stationed in Bosnia to repatriate and protect returning refugees, shut down propaganda operations, disarm warlords, and/or apprehend indicted war criminals. Instead, Clinton has often been reduced to exhorting the Bosnian leaders who have systematically undermined the liberal spirit of the Dayton Accords to accomplish these tasks.

Clinton's experience in Bosnia is reflected in each of his administration's military actions, spurring critics to launch two sets of attacks against his military interventions abroad. 2 On the one hand, many argue that Clinton has used force mostly to achieve ideological goals like promoting democracy or conducting humanitarian social work rather than pursuing traditionally conceived national interests. While some applaud these efforts, others are appalled that the U.S. would depart so frequently from national security considerations in deciding when and where to intervene. On the other hand, many argue that Clinton has been vacillating, ineffective and indecisive in his use of force abroad. Those who support intervention on behalf of ideological or humanitarian causes wish that Clinton had done more to achieve these goals. Those more reluctant to support these interventions have criticized him for launching limited interventions characterized by incremental escalation rather than the application of overwhelming and decisive force.

Why has the Clinton administration committed to use American military might to resolve a variety of crises, as with the constant threats to launch air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs from 1993 to mid-1995, only to back off at the last minute, damaging U.S. prestige and the credibility of American commitments? Why does it send troops only when it is relatively certain those troops will not face combat, as in its "permissive occupation" of Haiti in 1994? Why has it consistently done less than the minimum necessary to achieve its goals in these conflicts, as the failure of Clinton's "nation-building" efforts in Somalia best illustrates?

It is tempting to ascribe these anomalies to the personality of the president, the bureaucratic politics within his administration, or to a uniquely American pattern of military intervention. Building on the literature on the democratic peace, this paper develops a different line of analysis and argues that the puzzling pattern of contemporary U.S. military interventions is precisely what one should expect of a liberal state.

Analysts from the liberal perspective have focused on explaining why democracies don't fight one another. One group of democratic peace scholars argues that liberal cultural norms of tolerance for self-determination and support for non-violent conflict resolution bind liberal states together in the "pacific union." 3 Others believe that the institutional constraints imposed by republican government limit the ability of liberal states to go to war. 4 Yet another group focuses on the enhanced influence that international regimes and alliances have on the liberal states that participate in them. 5 This paper uses each of these arguments to account for the pattern of contemporary U.S. interventions. While advocates of the liberal argument believe these factors to be mutually reinforcing in forging the democratic peace, this paper sees a basic tension between the policy logics of liberal values and institutions, which is exacerbated by the alliances between liberal states.

Most analysts of the democratic peace emphasize that shared values lead to mutual respect and cooperation among liberal states. These values, however, can also legitimate moral crusades to oppose illiberal states, promote democracy, stop abuses of human rights or respond to humanitarian catastrophes. 6 At the same time, the constraints imposed by liberal political institutions make these states reluctant to use force or to pay high costs to achieve liberal goals. Those who wish to compel presidents to intervene to serve liberal causes and those who want to pressure him to withdraw from costly interventions can use both democratic institutions.

These conflicting political dynamics lead to a distinctive pattern of military intervention. On the one hand, presidents must respond in a manner consistent with liberal values to the political and humanitarian crises that reach the consciousness of the American people. Failure to do so opens them up to charges of violating those liberal values. The fact that such attacks came from "liberal" Democrats in the Haitian case and "conservative" Republicans in the Bosnian case suggests that liberal culture broadly conceived, rather than the unique political ideologies of domestic actors in the U.S., explains the pattern of contemporary U.S. military interventions. On the other hand, presidents who send troops into combat make themselves vulnerable to political charges that they have needlessly sacrificed the lives of U.S. soldiers. The fact that such attacks came from a Democrat-controlled Congress in the Somali and Haitian cases and a Republican Congress in Bosnia suggests that these institutional constraints transcend purely partisan politics.

The logical response of presidents placed in this domestic political bind is to do whatever they can short of war to demonstrate that they are responding to the relevant crisis. Presidents do this even if they believe that their limited actions are unlikely to resolve the crisis. If they are fortunate, diplomacy, economic sanctions and the threat of force achieve limited progress, even if they fail to generate a definitive solution. Having staked U.S. resources and prestige on achieving solutions, however, it becomes more difficult and costly to disengage from the situation when it appears that a substantial commitment of military power is necessary to resolve the crisis.

When the political costs of suffering casualties in war are greater than the costs of violating liberal principles, presidents are likely to withdraw from interventions. Presidents should not commit U.S. resources and prestige to losing battles they are not prepared to fight. In the short-term, however, demonstrating commitment to liberal causes through limited initiatives inflicts less political costs on presidents than would inaction. Thus, presidents seem doomed to repeat the pattern of gradually escalating involvement in these crises and then stepping away from the brink when it appears that military force is necessary to achieve a solution. When military force is used in support of liberal values, it will often be used in a limited, vacillating and ineffectual manner.

The alliances liberal states form among themselves compounds this problem. A collection of liberal states acting in concert can only reinforce the contradictory political impulses within each state. On the one hand, states making principled commitments to solve humanitarian crises can drag their allies into cooperative efforts to address such problems. On the other hand, these states, each facing domestic constraints against suffering casualties, can convince their liberal friends to exercise caution, thus reinforcing the restraining dynamics of liberal institutions. This essay uses Clinton administration policy toward Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia to demonstrate the utility of this argument for explaining U.S. intervention in the contemporary era.


America's December 1992 intervention in Somalia provides an excellent example of the puzzling pattern of contemporary U.S. interventions. It is more difficult to find a concrete national interest behind the Somalia case than for virtually any other U.S. intervention. The U.S. had eliminated aid to the regime of Mohammed Siad Barre in the late 1980s precisely because it no longer needed Somalia's support in its Cold War confrontation with the USSR. Therefore, the civil war that engulfed that country after Siad Barre's overthrow in January 1991, accompanied by a famine that killed hundreds of thousands, was of little concern to U.S. strategists.

Televised pictures of this human tragedy, however, generated sympathy throughout the U.S.. George Bush explained his decision to send 28,000 troops to Somalia as a straightforward response to this tragedy. "The people of Somalia, especially the children of Somalia, need our help...We must help them live. We must give them hope. America must act." 7 Ignoring this kind of visible humanitarian disaster would violate America's liberal ideals.

Bill Clinton's subsequent decision to expand the mission to attempt to resolve the civil war and build a new Somali state also flowed from liberal concerns. Because the famine was caused by the civil war, it was necessary to resolve that war in order to devise a durable solution to the problem of starvation. A premature exit by the U.S. could lead to another round of famine. This time, the president would not only face charges of callousness in the face of human tragedy, but also criticism from those arguing that he had wasted a chance to end that tragedy. As UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright framed the problem, "the decision we must make is whether to pull up the stakes and allow Somalia to fall back into the abyss or to stay the course and help lift the country and its people from the category of failed state into that of an emerging democracy." 8

While both presidents intervened for liberal reasons, both also did less than the minimum necessary to achieve their goals. Bush promised that the mission of U.S. troops would be limited to the protection of aid convoys to starving Somalis, a mission he suggested could be completed by Clinton's inauguration. 9 By not addressing the underlying cause of the famine, however, Bush's strategy was unlikely to achieve a long-term solution to famine in Somalia. While the Clinton administration recognized that a more ambitious effort would be required to bring about a definitive end to the famine, Clinton withdrew U.S. troops from Somalia before his "nation-building" initiatives had been put in place.

Liberal institutional constraints against paying high costs in war can account for the reluctance of both Bush and Clinton to take the decisive measures necessary to achieve their liberal goals in Somalia. By explicitly forgoing a role in resolving the ongoing civil war, Bush was able to gain assurances from the major clan leaders that U.S. forces would not be attacked. Clinton's nation-building efforts, however, included a serious military effort to defeat Somali clan leader Mohammed Farah Aideed, whose forces were responsible for the deaths of 24 Pakistani peacekeepers, killed in a June 6, 1993 ambush.

Clinton found himself trapped in a war that quickly became unpopular at home. Aideed's ability to avoid capture by 400 U.S. Rangers over the course of three months was a constant embarrassment. By using civilians as shields and by fighting in the most populated areas of Mogadishu, Aideed's tactics forced U.S. troops to kill thousands of civilians. Most importantly, his forces inflicted casualties against U.S. troops. On October 3, after seven U.S. soldiers had already died in Somalia, U.S. troops that had launched a raid against an Aideed stronghold got pinned down in a fierce firefight on the streets of Mogadishu. Thirteen American soldiers died. Dozens more were wounded. A helicopter pilot was captured.

Severe pressure from Congress and the American public compelled President Clinton to respond to these events by withdrawing U.S. troops from Somalia. Even before the October battle, Congressional support for the Somalia intervention had diminished markedly. In late September, both houses of Congress passed a non-binding resolution asking the president to report his objectives in Somalia to Congress by October 15, 1993 and directing him to seek Congress's approval for a continued American presence by November 15. One of the principal advocates of this measure, Sen. John McCain, explained his opposition to Clinton's policy in the following terms: "Mr. President, we went to Somalia to keep people from starving to death. Now we are killing women and children because they are combatants. This has to stop." 10 In the immediate aftermath of the October battle, Congressional opposition became fiercer. Clinton was compelled to announce that he would end most combat operations and to promise that all troops would be removed after a six-month interval, on March 31, 1994. Even after making this announcement, Clinton had trouble beating back a Senate measure sponsored by Sen. Robert Byrd which would have brought the troops home by January 15, 1994.

Thus, liberal motivations pushed the U.S. to intervene in Somalia. Liberal constraints caused the Clinton administration to withdraw from the intervention before coming remotely close to completing its efforts to build a new Somali state.


The September 1994 intervention in Haiti presents a similar puzzle. In contrast with the Somali case, there was at least one concrete interest served by the intervention, the termination of the flow of Haitian refugees to the shores of Florida. It is unclear, however, why it was necessary to send the 10th Mountain Division to Haiti to stanch this flow. Both Bush and Clinton had found that a Coast Guard quarantine of Haiti coupled with the immediate repatriation of refugees provided an effective deterrent to potential immigrants at less risk and cost than a military intervention. As in the Somali case, liberal values appear to have been the principal motivation behind the intervention. As Clinton explained, the U.S. intervened to stop "rising atrocities" and "to remove Haitian dictators and restore a democratic government." 11 Junta leader General Raoul Cédras was exiled to Panama. Jean Bertrand Aristide was restored to the Haitian presidency, from which he had been deposed in 1991. U.S. occupation troops presided over six rounds of elections, including December 1995 presidential elections that led to the first peaceful transfer of power from one elected president to another in Haitian history, as Réne Préval replaced his ally Aristide.

At the same time, the Clinton administration once again exhibited considerable vacillation and substantial reluctance to pay significant costs to achieve these liberal goals. In 1993, the Clinton administration depended on economic sanctions and diplomacy to restore democracy to Haiti, brokering the June 1993 Governor's Island accords which called for the return of Aristide to Haiti on October 30, 1993. What followed was one of the most embarrassing events in Clinton foreign policy. On October 11, a week after the firefight in Mogadishu, the U.S.S. Harlan County arrived at Port au Prince with 200 lightly armed U.S. and Canadian military trainers and military engineers set to begin retraining the Haitian armed forces to adhere to democratic standards. When an equal number of armed thugs proclaiming they would turn Haiti into "another Somalia" blocked the disembarkation of these troops, the mission was abandoned and the Harlan County recalled.

Clinton responded to this humiliation with another year of diplomatic initiatives and economic sanctions, announcing only on September 15, 1994 that he would use force to restore Haitian democracy. Just two days after his announcement that war was imminent, however, Clinton decided to send former President Jimmy Carter, former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and Sen. Sam Nunn to Haiti to make one final attempt to encourage General Cédras to leave office peacefully. This diplomatic mission, backed by a credible threat to use force, succeeded. Cédras "invited" U.S. troops into Haiti just as the first contingents of the invasion force had become airborne. In the end, Clinton sent troops to Haiti only when he was relatively certain that those troops would not face any resistance.

One of the great costs of this permissive occupation was that U.S. troops landed in Haiti as allies of the Haitian military that had caused the political and humanitarian crisis in the first place. Only the decision of Haitian troops to fire indiscriminately on Haitian civilians celebrating the U.S. intervention led to an expansion of the U.S. mission to include disarming the Haitian military. Throughout the occupation, U.S. forces avoided disarming the right-wing elements that continue to pose a threat to Haitian democracy, in part, to minimize the chance of American casualties.

The liberal approach provides a compelling explanation for this puzzling behavior. The international and domestic pressures to fight for a liberal cause in Haiti were more pronounced than in the Somali case. The U.S. was drawn into the Haitian crisis in part by its liberal allies in the hemisphere. The 1991 coup that deposed Rev. Aristide, the first freely elected president in Haitian history, took place at a time when the spread of liberal democracy to nearly every Latin American state made effective collective action in support of democracy more possible than ever before. This commitment was codified in the June 1991 Santiago Resolutions of the Organization of American States. 12 Despite its discomfort with Aristide's radical program, the Bush administration joined the economic sanctions agreed upon by the OAS to fulfill its commitment to its liberal allies in Latin America by participating in the regional defense of democracy.

U.S. involvement in Haiti was also more clearly shaped by domestic political pressure than was true in Somalia. Bush intervened in Somalia for humanitarian reasons, but he was not compelled to do so by domestic pressure. Indeed, he intervened only after he had been defeated in his bid for re-election. In the Haitian case, on the other hand, domestic pressure, much of it emanating from Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, pushed Bush to get more deeply involved. During the 1992 campaign, Clinton argued that Bush had been insufficiently vigorous in his efforts to restore democracy to Haiti. More importantly, Clinton attacked Bush's policy of forced repatriation of Haitian refugees as a violation of America's liberal values.

Yet, when up to 150,000 Haitians were on the verge of fleeing the island in hopes of arriving in Florida during the first days of the new administration, the president-elect's transition team cooperated with the Bush administration on an even harsher quarantine policy than had been pursued previously. After Clinton reversed his refugee policy, he faced severe criticism from liberal activists and made himself vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy for violating a campaign promise in the first days of his presidency. The Congressional Black Caucus sharply criticized the administration's policy and demanded that Clinton take immediate action to restore Rev. Aristide to office, with Rep. Major Owens proclaiming that, "we are not serious about democracy in Haiti, about using the clout of the international community to return democracy to Haiti. We are not serious about assuming our role in the world as the last superpower to be a force for good in guaranteeing the human rights of human beings everywhere." 13

Clinton attempted to mute these charges of hypocrisy by pushing for the diplomatic solution embodied in the Governor's Island accords. This solution perfectly suited Clinton's domestic constraints by allowing him to argue that he had achieved a victory for liberal democracy and human rights without risking U.S. troops in combat. When these accords unraveled in the humiliation of the Harlan County affair, American liberals who had acquiesced in Clinton's repatriation policies because they believed he was making good faith efforts to change the conditions in Haiti, began again to criticize his policies in early 1994. Sen. Tom Harkin attacked the Clinton administration for its "embarrassing and shameful" failure to keep Haiti from suffering "another long, dark period of repression and military rule, poverty, murders and killings and violations of human rights." 14 Transafrica Director Randall Robinson protested Clinton's "racist" policy toward Haitian refugees with a 27-day hunger strike. A variety of other liberal interest groups supported Robinson's protest. Members of the Black Caucus and other congressional liberals dramatized their opposition by chaining themselves to the White House gate.

The Clinton administration reversed its refugee policy in response to these criticisms. Instead of forcefully returning ships at sea, the U.S. would grant Haitian exiles hearings at sea to determine if they qualified for political asylum. After a sharp increase in the number of Haitians seeking asylum, Clinton announced that refugees intercepted at sea would be taken to Panama or other Caribbean countries rather than the U.S.. Stopping the flow of Haitian refugees to the U.S. was always a central goal of the Clinton administration. What the events of mid-1994 illustrated, however, was that liberal pressure within the U.S. made it difficult for the Clinton administration to continue the proven policies of quarantine and repatriation, policies which were more cost-effective and entailed less risk than a military solution to the refugee crisis.

While domestic pressure from liberals pushed Clinton toward military intervention to restore democracy in Haiti, stronger domestic pressure constrained the president from taking dramatic action to accomplish this task. Congress responded to the events of October 1993 by protesting against the possibility of U.S. military intervention in Haiti. This call was led by Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole, who developed legislation that would have required President Clinton to ask for congressional authorization before using military force in Haiti. Dole summed up the sentiments of many in Congress when he stated that, "I wouldn't risk any American lives to put Aristide back in power." 15 The Dole Amendment was defeated, but only after Clinton had made it very clear that he had no intention of sending troops to Haiti.

As Clinton gradually toughened his stance against the Haitian military junta beginning in the spring of 1994, it became increasingly difficult for the president to back down from his efforts to force the Haitian junta to step down. There was still substantial domestic opposition to an invasion, however. Congress actively opposed the use of force to restore Aristide. Sen. Orrin Hatch expressed the thoughts of many members when he stated: "There is no consensus in Congress or among the American people for intervening in Haiti, or for a prolonged occupation of that country. Before we place our troops in imminent danger, the American people deserve a clear and concise explanation of what we hope to achieve in that country." 16 Opposition from Congress reflected the majority sentiment of the American public. In early September, an ABC poll revealed that 73 percent of Americans opposed an invasion.

Only at the last moment was Clinton able to resolve the contradictory impulses of the liberal dynamic. He had tried everything short of military intervention and had failed to stop human rights abuses or to restore democracy. With his last-minute diplomatic gambit, he managed to achieve his objectives without having to fight. U.S. troops arrived in Port au Prince only after the local military institution had promised not to shoot at them. This is perhaps the best scenario one can expect from the untidy politics of liberal interventionism.


Finally, the pattern of U.S. involvement in Bosnia clearly illustrates how American liberalism has both compelled Clinton to act yet constrained him from taking decisive action. Clinton has been pressured by domestic groups both to do something to stop the humanitarian crisis in Bosnia and to avoid sending U.S. troops into combat. America's liberal partners in the international system have also played a crucial role, mostly by constraining Clinton's ability to pursue the strategies that best served his domestic interests.

Clinton was confronted by constant television images detailing the shelling of Sarajevo and the flight of the hundreds of thousands of victims of Serb ethnic cleansing in his first months in office. He had used these very images during the 1992 campaign to attack Bush's inaction in the face of genocide. Clinton promised to take a more active role in resolving the Bosnian crisis because, as Secretary of State Warren Christopher expressed it: "We cannot ignore the human toll. Serbian ethnic cleansing has been pursued through mass murders, systematic beatings and ...rapes..., prolonged shelling of innocents in Sarajevo and elsewhere, forced displacement of entire villages, inhumane treatment of prisoners in detention camps, the blockading of relief to sick and starving citizensŠOur conscience revolts at the idea of accepting such brutality." 17

Clinton also faced institutional constraints from the American public and Congress that made the large-scale involvement of American troops unacceptable. Many members of Congress feared that Bosnia could easily become "another Vietnam" if U.S. troops intervened. 18 Therefore, while Clinton needed to respond to the crisis in Bosnia, he could not take the kind of military action necessary to resolve the crisis at that time.

In May 1993, the Clinton administration settled on two major policy initiatives. First, it would push to lift the arms embargo that had been imposed on Bosnia by the UN. Second, it would punish the Bosnian Serbs by launching air strikes against Serb targets.

The combination of "lift and strike" offered an effective solution to Clinton's domestic dilemma. Lifting the arms embargo would place Clinton on the side of the beleaguered Bosnian government while keeping U.S. troops out of combat. Air strikes would provide a highly visible demonstration of action against Serbian aggression, while the Serbs' unsophisticated air defenses would pose little risk to U.S. planes. At the same time the U.S. was contemplating military action from the air, Christopher laid out four strict tests for the use of ground troops: 1) the goal had to be clearly stated to the American people, 2) there had to be a strong likelihood of success, 3) there must be an exit strategy, and 4) the action had to win public support. 19 These tests were not close to being met in Bosnia in 1993. Thus, despite the skepticism among Clinton's military advisors that these initiatives would turn the tide in the Bosnian war, the president embraced lift and strike because it allowed him to respond to the conflicting domestic pressures of liberal interventionism.

Within two weeks of announcing its intention to bomb Serb targets, the Clinton administration backed away from its threat. Instead it endorsed a European plan to establish "safe havens," within which Muslim civilians would be protected from Serb attacks. International protests, rather than domestic constraints, forced Clinton to back down. When Christopher traveled to Europe to consult with America's allies, the French and British rejected the lift and strike plan because, while it may have solved Clinton's domestic problems, it would have created domestic problems for the Europeans. Both countries had peacekeeping troops deployed in Bosnia serving as non-partisan protectors of aid convoys. Removing the arms embargo and launching air strikes against Serbs would place the international community on the side of the Bosnian government and render the peacekeeping troops subject to reprisals by Serb forces. Clinton backed down from the policy of lift and strike because he considered the protection of America's ties to its liberal NATO allies more important than the outcome in Bosnia. 20

Torn by contradictory domestic and international pressures, the Clinton administration pursued a vacillating policy between mid-1993 and mid-1995 that led to no better than a continued stalemate in Bosnia. Domestic politics pushed Clinton to take more vigorous action in Bosnia. Clinton called for air strikes against Bosnian Serb forces on at least five occasions, often in response to visible, televised attacks on Bosnian civilians which generated outrage in the U.S., such as the February 1994 mortar attack on Sarajevo's central market and the April 1995 artillery attack on a Tuzla cafe. Meanwhile, members of Congress became the principal advocates of a unilateral lifting of the embargo because it allowed them to take a principled liberal stand that would impose limited costs on their constituents. Both houses of Congress voted to unilaterally lift the arms embargo in the summer of 1994. Clinton responded to these congressional votes by ending U.S. participation in the enforcement of the embargo and tacitly accepting the smuggling of Iranian arms to the Bosnian government.

During each stage of the crisis, Clinton initially proposed forceful actions only to back down at the last minute. When air strikes were launched, they were so limited they made Clinton look weak both to domestic critics and the Serbs. These seemingly anomalous responses reflected America's consideration for its liberal allies in Europe. Indeed, because the U.S. acted in concert with its allies through the NATO command, the U.S. could not bomb the Serbs without the express consent of its partners in that transnational military organization of liberal states. America's European allies consistently opposed lifting the arms embargo and the widespread use of air power throughout the 1993 to mid-1995 period because they feared that a more vigorous military policy would endanger their peacekeepers. The Serb capture of hundreds of UN hostages in response to a limited air strike in mid-1995 provided a stark illustration of the reasonableness of these fears. Throughout this period, Clinton responded to pressure from America's European allies by supporting their plans for a negotiated settlement ending in the partitioning of Bosnia between Bosnian Serbs and a Muslim-Croat Federation, an idea Clinton spokesmen had earlier dismissed as "ratif[ying] the atrocities of ethnic cleansing." 21

The vacillation in U.S. policy ended only in mid-1995. In July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces overran two UN safe havens killing thousands of Muslim men who had taken refuge in the "safe haven" of Srebrenica. This time, America's allies supported Clinton's call for large-scale air attacks against Serb forces to bring the Serbs to the bargaining table. In October, the Clinton administration brokered a cease-fire and invited the combatants to engage in peace negotiations, which ended in the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords on November 21, 1995. As a crucial part of this settlement, Clinton committed to send twenty thousand U.S. troops to Bosnia to lead a sixty thousand strong NATO peacekeeping force.

What explains this decisive and resolute policy after three years of indecision? In part, the intensification of the humanitarian crisis represented by the atrocities committed at Srebrenica helped break the deadlock. American fears of suffering significant casualties in a military intervention played an even greater role in bringing about decisive U.S. action. The manifest failure of the UN Protection Force meant that the Clinton administration could no longer avoid some type of U.S. troop presence. The French called for a more vigorous and active defense of safe havens through the use of a rapid reaction force including U.S. troops. Alternatively, the Europeans could have collected on Clinton's promise to send American soldiers to participate in the withdrawal of their troops. Either policy would have placed U.S. troops in combat in Bosnia, risking domestically damaging casualties in the process. In this context, a true peacekeeping mission looked like the safest route for U.S. troops to enter Bosnia. A peacekeeping mission also held out the possibility of achieving some of America's liberal goals. The Europeans finally supported the U.S. strategy of massive air strikes against Serb targets because the removal of peacekeepers from the areas where they had been held hostage earlier in 1995 rendered them less vulnerable to Serb reprisals.

Domestic pressure reinforced this political dynamic as Clinton tried to resolve the Bosnia issue before beginning his 1996 campaign. Congressional resolutions to lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian government became the principal forum for the new Republican majority's attacks on the morality of Clinton's Balkan policy. In June, the House voted 318-99 in favor of a resolution unilaterally lifting the arms embargo upon the request of the Bosnian government, or if the UN withdrew its forces. When the Senate passed this resolution 69-29 in July, Senate Majority Leader Dole denounced Clinton's inaction: "It is high time the Clinton administration abandon its flimsy excuses for the United Nations' pitiful performance, shed the false mantle of humanitarianism, and face the reality of the UN failure in Bosnia...We have an obligation to the Bosnian people and to our principles, to allow a UN member state, the victim of aggression, to defend itself." 22 The fact that "conservative" Republicans launched this "liberal" attack against Clinton's Bosnia policies, while "liberal" Democrats launched the corresponding attacks against Clinton's Haiti policy suggests that a broader liberal perspective rather than a focus on the unique domestic political dynamics and culture of U.S. is needed to explain this phenomenon.

Despite the limited risks associated with a peacekeeping mission, the same members of Congress who had pressed Clinton to take decisive action in Bosnia also argued against the deployment of the 20,000 troops called for by the Dayton Accords. Just before the accords were signed, the House voted to bar any money for peacekeepers in Bosnia. In nearly derailing the deployment of the U.S. troops essential for the successful implementation of the accords, the House followed public opinion. Polls indicated that only 36 percent of Americans thought the deployment was the "right thing to do" while 58 percent said that the troops should be kept home. 23 The Senate voted down a similar amendment only after Clinton promised that he would arm and train the Bosnian Army during the intervention, minimize the risks faced by U.S. troops and withdraw those troops within a year's time.

While thousands of U.S. troops have remained in Bosnia past this one-year deadline, thus far they have suffered only a handful of casualties. The relatively low risk to U.S. troops was achieved, in part, by the extreme caution with which they have acted in Bosnia. U.S. troops have rarely attempted to apprehend people indicted by the UN War Crimes Tribunal. When ethnic extremist parties manipulated the internationally sponsored 1996 elections, the international community accepted the results. Aid money continues to be distributed despite the fact that the new political institutions called for in the accords are barely functioning. Only very limited efforts have been made to assist in the resettlement of refugees who had been evicted from their homes.

US troops have stayed in Bosnia years longer than promised. The Clinton administration faced a similar dilemma in Bosnia to the one it faced in Somalia in 1993. If U.S. troops were to leave, Bosnia could erupt in civil war once again, negating the benefits that have resulted from the NATO occupation. Domestic critics would hold Clinton responsible for any violations of human rights that might ensue. In anticipation of this problem, U.S. and NATO forces gingerly began to expand the mission of the occupation forces in mid-1997. U.S. troops accompanied and protected small groups of refugees returning to their homes. NATO forces took advantage of a rift in the leadership of the Bosnian Serb Republic by backing the President of that Republic, Biljana Plavsic, in her power struggle against Radovan Karadzic, who led what had been the most powerful and intransigent faction in the region. NATO has steadily increased its authority in Bosnia and weakened the forces of extremism in this cautious incremental fashion.

NATO has thus far resisted the temptation to apprehend Karadzic, however. Such a course of action could lead to the deaths of many U.S. and European soldiers. The patterns outlined here suggest that if Karadzic's supporters were to respond to the increased NATO pressure by inflicting casualties against U.S. troops, the domestic cry to withdraw American soldiers would be hard for Clinton to resist. Today, the Clinton administration plans to send troops from the US Army Reserves to head the US contingent in Bosnia. If Clinton had been reluctant to risk the lives of the large contingent of regular troops that had been sent in 1996, he certainly will be reluctant to use this smaller group of reservists to take aggressive steps to achieve Clinton's ambitious political goals for that country.


Liberal Interventionism and Democratic Enlargement

The Clinton administration has placed the "enlargement of the world's community of market democracies" at the core of its foreign policy because it views a world filled with liberal democracies as one in which the U.S. is likely to become more prosperous and secure. 24 Paradoxically, America's own liberalism can make it difficult for the U.S. to be an effective champion for the promotion of human rights and democracy abroad. The Clinton administration has used military force to spread liberal values in places like Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia. In each of these cases, he hesitated before engaging in military interventions that involved the threat of American casualties. He only sent troops when he was relatively certain those troops would not face combat. Thus, the contradictory nature of liberal interventionism encouraged the Clinton administration to intervene in situations where the U.S. lacked concrete national security interests and to do so in a way that made it look indecisive, irresolute and foolish.

This pattern has certainly caused some damage to America's national security interests. The constraining power of liberal institutions, however, ensures that the costs of such behavior for U.S. security will not become very high. If civil wars in peripheral areas are not central to American national interests, public pressure helps remind decision-makers that they should not pay high costs in such conflicts. While entering these conflicts decisively as a combatant would have increased the chances of their successful resolution, America's less costly and more indecisive mix of diplomacy, economic sanctions, low-risk air strikes, and permissive military occupations probably represented a more appropriate choice for the U.S. given its limited stake in these countries. Furthermore, the increased sensitivity to the concerns of its liberal allies in multilateral institutions like the OAS and NATO exhibited by the U.S. in the contemporary era may help strengthen the liberal pacific union even if their collective action does not succeed in planting democracy in target states. Thus, while future administrations may also bumble through embarrassing half-hearted military interventions in support of liberal causes, the costs of such behavior will probably be relatively easy to bear.



Note 1:  Bill Clinton, "In Clinton's Words: Bosnians Must Wage a Hard Fight for Peace," New York Times, December 23, 1997.Back.

Note 2:  Morton Halperin, "Guaranteeing Democracy," Foreign Policy, No. 91, Summer 1993, pp. 105-122; Steven Stedman "The New Interventionists," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 2, March/April 1993; Tony Smith, "In Defense of Intervention." Foreign Affairs, Vol. 73, No. 6, November/December 1994, pp. 34-46; David Hendrickson, "The Democratist Crusade: Intervention, Economic Sanctions and Engagement." World Policy Journal, Vol. 11, Winter 1994-1995, pp. 18-30; Michael Mandelbaum, "Foreign Policy as Social Work," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 75, No. 1, January/February 1996, pp. 16-32; Barry Posen, "Military Responses to Refugee Disasters," International Security, Vol. 21, No. 1, Summer 1996, pp. 72-111.Back.

Note 3:  Michael Doyle, "Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs, Part 1," Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 12, No. 3, 1983, pp. 205-235; Bruce Russett, Grasping the Democratic Peace, (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1993); William Dixon, "Democracy and the Peaceful Settlement of Disputes," American Political Science Review, Vol. 88, No. 1, 1994, pp. 14-32. Back.

Note 4:  T. Clifton Morgan and Sally Campbell, "Domestic Structure, Decisional Constraints and War: So Why Kant Democracies Fight?" Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 35, No. 2, 1991, pp. 187-211; Kurt Taylor Gaubatz, "Election Cycles and War," Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 35, No. 2, 1991, pp. 212-244; David Lake, "Powerful Pacifists: Democratic States and War," American Political Science Review, Vol. 86, No. 1, 1992, pp. 24-37; Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Randolph Siverson, "War and the Survival of Political Leaders," American Political Science Review, Vol. 89, No. 4, December 1995, pp. 841-855. Back.

Note 5:  Kurt Taylor Gaubatz, "Democracy and Commitment," International Organization, Vol. 50, No. 1, 1996, pp. 109-140; Thomas Risse-Kappen, (1996). "Collective Identity in a Democratic Community: The Case of NATO," The Culture of National Security, ed. Peter Katzenstein. (New York, NY, Columbia University Press, 1996) pp. 357-399.Back.

Note 6:  Michael Doyle, "Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs, Part 2," Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 12, No. 4, 1983, pp. 323-353. For public opinion data supporting liberal interventionism, see Steven Kull, "What the Public Knows That Washington Doesn't," Foreign Policy, No. 101, Winter 1995-6, pp. 102-115.Back.

Note 7:  George Bush, "Statement by the President," U.S. Department of State Dispatch, Vol. 3, No. 49, 1992, p. 865. Back.

Note 8:   Madeleine Albright, "Yes, There is a Reason to be in Somalia." New York Times, August 10, 1993.Back.

Note 9:   Bush, "Statement by the President," p. 865.Back.

Note 10:  U.S. Congress, Congressional Record, 103rd Congress, 1st Session, (Washington, DC, Government Printing Office, 1993) p. 11267.Back.

Note 11:  Bill Clinton, "The President's Oval Office Address to the Nation," U.S. Department of State Dispatch, Vol. 5, No. 38, 1994, p. 606.Back.

Note 12:  Inter-American Dialogue, Convergence and Continuity: The Americas in 1993, (Washington, DC, Aspen Institute, 1992); Robert Pastor, Whirlpool, (Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 1992); Tom Farer, ed., Beyond Sovereignty, (Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).Back.

Note 13:  U.S. Congress, Congressional Record, 103rd Congress, First Session, pp. 2456-7.Back.

Note 14:  U.S. Congress, Congressional Record, 103rd Congress, Second Session, p. 61.Back.

Note 15:  Thomas Friedman, "Dole Plans Bill to Bar the Use of GIs in Haiti," New York Times, October 18, 1993.Back.

Note 16:  U.S. Congress, Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere and Peace Corps Affairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 103rd Congress, Second Session, (Washington, DC, Government Printing Office, 1994), p. 12877.Back.

Note 17:  Warren Christopher, "Remarks of the Secretary of State," Foreign Policy Bulletin, January-April 1993, p. 76.Back.

Note 18:  Clifford Krauss, "Many in Congress, Citing Vietnam, Oppose Attacks," New York Times, May 7, 1993.Back.

Note 19:  Elaine Sciolino, "Christopher Explains the Conditions for Bosnia Peace," New York Times, April 28, 1993.Back.

Note 20:  Elaine Sciolino, "Bosnia Impasse: How U.S. Search for Unity With Allies Unraveled," New York Times, May 12, 1993.Back.

Note 21:  Thomas Friedman, "Clinton Neutral on Geneva Plan," New York Times, February 4, 1993; Elaine Sciolino, "Christopher Casts Doubt on Efforts for Bosnian Peace," New York Times, January 22, 1993.Back.

Note 22:  U.S. Congress, Congressional Record, 104th Congress, First Session, (Washington, DC, Government Printing Office, 1995), p. 9722.Back.

Note 23:  R.W. Apple, "Flimsy Bosnia Mandate," New York Times, December 14, 1995.Back.

Note 24:  Anthony Lake, "From Containment to Enlargement: Address at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC, September 21, 1993." U.S. Department of State Dispatch 4(39). Back.